The Secret Connection Between Low Self-Esteem and Teen Substance Abuse

November 16, 2020
The Secret Connection Between Low Self-Esteem and Teen Substance Abuse
JessiRae Pulver-Adell

JessiRae Pulver-Adell is an addiction & recovery blogger for NBH. She writes to help people in recovery find their stepping stones to a healthier, happier life.

The Secret Connection Between Low Self-Esteem and Teen Substance Abuse

“I’m not good enough.”


“I am a failure.” 


“I’m too stupid to do that.”

What is Self Esteem and Why is It So Important to Teen Addiction?


Sometimes the causes of addiction are obvious, but in most cases the reason why teens abuse drugs and alcohol are unknown to them — and parents. 


When you don’t feel well about yourself you don’t treat yourself well. 


Low self esteem is one of the most common precursors to substance use and addiction in adolescents. 


The connection between low self-esteem and teenage substance abuse is long documented. Many treatment programs incorporate addressing self-image as a critical component of recovery. 


Self esteem, put simply, is the way we perceive ourselves. Self-esteem is critical in development for the human spirit; our sense of self-worth governs our self-talk, ability to establish boundaries, and stand up for one’s body, values, and happiness. 



Someone with high self-esteem finds themselves capable, ready to tackle the world, self-assured, and confident


In contrast, those with low self-esteem hold themselves in little regard and experience shame, unworthiness, and do not feel comfortable in their own skin. They are easily swayed, need someone to comfort them, and are less equipped to handle their emotions in a healthy way. Furthermore, those with a negative self-image tend to downplay their accomplishments, belittle themselves, and do not value their worth.


Teenagers with low self esteem may be depressed, experience intense feelings of shame, and desperately want to fit in like everybody else. Many teens feel they are socially inept without abusing addictive substances. Low-self esteem is often the precursor of adolescent problems which may follow teenagers into adulthood. 



Low self-esteem is one of the leading catalysts of addiction among teens. Though low regard for oneself is a separate issue from substance abuse, without improving one’s self-esteem, relapse, recidivism, and the development of a full-blown substance use disorder is common in adolescents


Without therapy, self-abasing becomes all-consuming, governing one’s behavior and compromising decision making. As these patterns continue to spiral, teens find themselves taking potentially addictive substances to numb problems stemming from low self-esteem. 

Negative Self Talk Has the Following Effects: 

  • Dramatic influence on how teenagers perceive their bodies
  • Negative impact on the way teens speak to themselves internally
    (ie: “I am stupid” vs. “I made a mistake and I’ll do better next time”)
  • Negative effects on the central nervous system 
  • Causes disturbing, recurring thoughts
  • Development of depression; suicidal thoughts
  • Allowing others to address oneself negatively, without question
  • Not recognizing abuse when it’s happening
  • Staying quiet about important things; i.e.: not reporting assault


Why Self Esteem and Addiction Go Hand-in-Hand


Foundations built upon low self-esteem are dangerous because teenagers, in an attempt to feel fulfilled and acknowledged, will seek validation in the wrong places. Many teenagers experiment with drugs and alcohol to fit in with the crowd; the feeling of “belonging” becomes misappropriated with perpetuating substance abuse.


Escaping the psychological pain of low-self esteem continues manifesting in abusing one’s substance of choice — until the adolescent body becomes physically dependent upon the addictive substance and a full-bodied substance use disorder is developed. Abuse of legally prescribed medicines also place teens at risk for addiction.

Teenagers Self-Medicate to: 

  • Soothe anxiety
  • Lift depression
  • Fit into otherwise socially awkward situations
  • Alleviate suicidal thoughts
  • Quiet noisy thoughts; in some cases, to stop auditory hallucinations


Without being aware of underlying disorders and their symptoms, teens and parents are at a severe disadvantage, and lose out on valuable treatment time. The earlier one begins treatment — even before the development of a “full blown” substance use disorder — the better teens recover. 


Early treatment saves adolescents and their parents from the anguish and confusion of living with an undiagnosed mental health disorder into early adulthood. Waiting to pursue treatment may stunt personal growth, career ambitions, and psychological well being. 


How Safe Landing Recovery Improves Self-Esteem

Safe Landing Recovery is a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center for teens; our treatment differs because we address the forces behind one’s self-rejection and help clients and parents understand where the roots of poor self esteem come from. Treating teenagers for addiction requires a practiced hand, and is different than treating adults with substance use disorders.


We help teens unlearn self-devaluing beliefs, and teach them to celebrate themselves positively while reconstructing one’s perception of self.


Our goal is to reach teens inside their own minds. 


Treatment is only as successful as clients understand how to shift their thinking from negative to positive. We offer full support and continual therapeutic and psychiatric services to help teens develop these skills for sober living. 


While addressing inherent problems of self-worth and self-esteem, many behavioral problems will begin to ameliorate. Those with low self-esteem feel rejected from “normative” groups, thereby acting out, as a means to find where they belong. 


We teach our clients they already do belong.


During treatment, clients and parents undergo intensive psychoeducation — where they both learn about the causes of addiction, symptoms of the disease, and barriers to sobriety. Throughout the course of intensive therapies, teenagers learn how to appropriately express their feelings, plan for the future, and focus on strengths to spearhead their future academic careers forward! 


Safe Landing Recovery offers a variety of therapeutic modalities to achieve recovery including:

  • Motivational Interviewing
  • Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
  • Harm Reduction Treatment
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
  • Dialectical Behavior Therapy

Safe Landing Recovery